Thursday, May 6, 2010

Back from Columbus and Why Long Drives are Dangerous

I just returned from a week in western Columbus (preceded by a day in Detroit) I was surprised by the near complete dearth, at least in the places I looked, of cultural activities and resources given the richness I've come to expect in Cleveland and the larger population numbers down south.

But the truly dangerous thing about finding myself in Columbus is the drive back: My grandfather has always been one for the road trip, in years not too long past driving cross-country several times per year. I'm more likely to choose air if given the choice, and 4 hours driving in any 12 (with iPod full blast, half that without) is about the limits of my sanity .

One advantage--or disadvantage, depending on your feelings regarding concentration while driving--however, is starting about an hour in my mind drifts to concepts even more unusual than my regular thought patterns. During the three and a half hours between Columbus and Cleveland there were too major thoughts: "Did I blow things by revealing my name too quickly" and "The relative importance of American cities through the eyes of the telephone company".

The first would make sense to one person and one person only, so it will not be discussed here. The latter is an interesting prospect: First, does anyone remember a what is rotary (pulse) telephone? The object from which the verb "dial" as in dial a telephone number comes from?

Back in the early days of telephony as we know it, before the advent of touch tone dialing telephone equipment was mechanical: Each pulse from a rotary telephone advanced a mechanical stepper, and as anyone who has used a rotary phone knows, 9 and 0 take far longer to dial than 1 and 2, with each digit having a corresponding number of pulses except 0 which has 10 pulses.

Until relatively recently, the second digit of area codes could only be "1" or "0", and for reasons I've never completely understood, the first and last digits could not be "1".

Based on this rule, the lowest valid area code, with 5 pulses would be 212 (2+1+2); the highest valid area code would be 909* with 28 pulses (9+10+9). At the standard maximum of 20 pulses per second and ignoring the break between digits, that would be 0.25 seconds to dial 212 and nearly 1.5 seconds to dial 909.

Based on the relative scarcity of mechanical equipment to process customer's dialing, it was therefore advantageous to plan things so that one device could handle the most greatest number of calls possible, and to do that ensure that the device spends the shortest amount of time practical on any one call. Of course, some regions will get more calls than others...and with that we arrive at the genius behind the original layout of area codes.

When area codes were originally assigned, and reassigned throughout the rotary era, they were not assigned geographically, but by the relative importance to and the number of telephone calls expected by the AT&T, The Telephone Company (and a family tree that is quite amusing, reminding me slightly of a mercury blob)

Now that we're well into the 21st century, and I may be a member of the last generation to experience rotary dialing it's interesting to think about the historical importance of cities based on their original area codes:

New York (212) and Los Angeles (213) at the more important end make sense; Cleveland (216) seems a bit surprising in a modern context, but makes sense historically; upper Michigan at 906 shows a bit of contempt, but without any industries to drive heavy call volume makes sense. But that's where my historical recollection ended, and about the time I pulled into a rest stop on Interstate 71 I found myself wondering who the other "low pulse" cities were--312 for Chicago, 313 for Detroit, 214 for Dallas, etc., etc.

Of course, it's completely useless information but I thought it was interesting at the time.

Now you have a glimpse of what my mind does when I'm bored :)

*- A significant portion of my childhood and adolescence was actually spent in "The Nine Oh Nine", hoever, this area code came out of 714 in the very early 90s, well after the pulse fad had faded.

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